Almost 104 years ago today, Ottoman forces shattered a young Armenian girl’s life when they entered her home in modern-day Kilis and abducted her and her family. Soldiers ordered the young girl, Siranush, and her family to march into the scorching Syrian desert as part of the Ottoman Empire’s orchestrated campaign to annihilate the Armenian people.
As Siranush trudged through the desert, she witnessed horrific atrocities, including the slaughter of her parents and siblings. She was the only person in her family to survive the death march. Her only belonging was a pair of earrings, which Ottoman forces confiscated and later punished her for by severing one of her ears, leaving behind a visible scar that would serve as a lifelong reminder of the genocide’s horrors. Traumatized and orphaned, Siranush later found refuge in the arms of Syrian families in Aleppo. She passed down her story to her grandchildren in the hopes that, one day, there would finally be justice for this great crime.
Siranush was my great-grandmother. And although more than a century has passed since her traumatic expulsion from her home, my great-grandmother’s story is all too familiar in the hearts and minds of Armenians across the world as it marks the 104th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Today and all days, Armenians mourn the death of ancestors and loss of homelands, and demand justice from the Turkish government for its continued denial of the genocide.
Her only belonging was a pair of earrings, which Ottoman forces confiscated and later punished her for by severing one of her ears, leaving behind a visible scar that would serve as a lifelong reminder of the genocide’s horrors.
The failure of Turkey and external actors like the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide has stunted progress for reconciliation and lasting peace between Armenians and Turks. Denying genocide undermines global resolve to prevent the recurrence of mass atrocities and achieve true justice in their aftermath. Only by recognizing and learning from history’s mistakes can humanity heal, build peace, and end the cycle of mass violence and tragedy.
THE TRAGEDY OF DENIAL
The Armenian case partly inspired the renowned legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin, to investigate attempts to eliminate an entire people and invent the term “genocide” in 1943. Lemkin cited the killings of Armenians as a definitive example of genocide in the 20th century. Overwhelming evidence proves that up to 1.5 million Armenians were systematically massacred by the Ottoman Empire during its collapse. Ottoman forces shot, starved, maimed, worked to death, raped, burned, deported, and drowned Armenians en masse. Ottoman authorities destroyed or confiscated Armenian churches, homes, cultural and other properties in the homelands where Armenians lived for 2,500 years.
Denying genocide merely shields the perpetrators and obscures the crimes. As a result, the devastating consequences of the Armenian genocide — amplified by its institutionalized denial — continue to reverberate today.
For decades, US administrations have spared Turkey from accountability by refusing to formally use the term “genocide” when describing the mass killings of Armenians. In some cases, US officials have even actively worked to oppose genocide recognition. In 2007, there was some hope that a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives would pass a resolution sponsored by more than half of the House to recognize the atrocity as genocide, but ultimately then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to consider the legislation. Since then, similar efforts have not gained traction. The United States has suggested that formal recognition of the genocide threatens to undermine “regional security” — as it argued in 2007 when Turkey was an important staging ground for the US war in Iraq — as well as alliances like NATO and US weapons sales to Turkey. In doing so, the United States has demonstrated that any gross human rights violation can be ignored for the right price or political convenience.
Due to the absence of transitional justice between the Turkish government and the Armenian people, Armenians grow up living with the anxiety that their culture and existence is still threatened. So for more than a century, Armenians — particularly those in the diaspora — have passed down this trauma and Armenian children have continued to be raised to distrust and resent Turks. Simultaneously, millions of Turks have been taught that there was never a genocide as Armenians have either been erased or painted as villains in textbooks.
Despite Turkey’s efforts to distance itself from its Ottoman past, we cannot deny the reality of this genocide. Continuing to do so makes it difficult for some Turks to accept the painful reality that their ancestors may have committed and covered up these atrocities, inhibiting Turkey from freeing itself from that chapter of history and turning towards a more sustainable and equitable future.
On the global stage, the continued denial of genocide has sent a horrific message to tyrants around the world that they can escape accountability for the right price, emboldening them to pursue atrocities. As Adolf Hitler once asked, when responding to the question of the future consequences of his crimes, “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?”
LEARNING FROM OUR HISTORY
As a global community, we must apologize for allowing the wounds of the Armenian people to fester for so long and recognize our failure to help achieve justice for this genocide. We must resolve to never again repeat these mistakes, not just for Armenians, but for all people who have faced, are facing, or are at risk of atrocities around the world. As Rohingya Muslims pursue justice for their own genocide, for example, will we repeat these same mistakes for political expediency or will we ask ourselves what our role in their suffering is and what are we doing to hold perpetrators accountable and help end the catastrophic violence and impunity? Unfortunately, the reality is that we have failed to learn these critical lessons and are not doing enough.
Further, it is critical to recognize that any United States action to counter impunity abroad rings hollow if the US won’t reckon with its own crimes. Failures to meaningfully recognize and learn from our own atrocities and mass structures of state violence — like the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and the internment of Japanese Americans — and bring justice for victims also reverberate in our society today. Policies of hatred — amplified in this time of Trumpism — that allow for violence are already too close for comfort, but they can be countered if we have the courage to choose what is right over what’s politically expedient.
As my great-grandmother taught me, our solidarity with survivors (and those who did not survive) must be measured by the strength and effectiveness of our mechanisms for justice, facilitating reconciliation, and ending the cycle of tragedy. Universal values mean little if we fail to remember and learn from our past failings to uphold them.
Mariam Iskajyan is the Policy and Advocacy Program Manager at Win Without War. An Armenian-American immigrant, she specializes in the impacts of US foreign policy on migration, human security, and peacebuilding.